It's the sweltering summer of 1944, and Newark is in the grip of a terrifying epidemic, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming paralysis, life-long disability, even death.
Decent, athletic, twenty-three year old playground director Bucky Cantor is devoted to his charges and ashamed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. As polio begins to ravage Bucky's playground - child by helpless child - Roth leads us through every emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering and the pain.
This is an exceptionally good book and Roth's invention of Bucky Cantor is one of the best characters I have had the pleasure of reading.
For decades I have claimed that my favourite book is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as the characters of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout left a lasting impression on me since I first read it at school when I was just thirteen. I have also re-read it on numerous occasions during the intervening decades. However, this book comes very close to knocking it off the pedestal from which I have held it for so long.
This is a very powerful book and contrasts the war raging across Europe to that of a localised war taking place in Newark as a polio epidemic sweeps through, claiming many lives in the process. The pace of the book is fairly slow but echoes the events taking place within the plot perfectly and at no point did I want things to hurry along.
Atmospherically, Roth creates a sense of being there. I could feel the heat being experienced that summer as I read this book through the tangible descriptions the author creates. He is succinct with his words and thus packs his writing with meaningful narrative.
Written with a gritty realism whilst at the same time demonstrating sensitivity, Roth has written an intelligent and powerful novel which will remain with me for a very long time.
About the Author:
ilip Milton Roth is an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960's National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint, and has continued to write critically-acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979, and include American Pastoral (1997) (winner of the Pulitzer Prize). In May 2011, he won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction.